Friday, February 10, 2006

Media: "If his breed is not to die ..."

My friend and colleague Mort Rosenblum recently wrote an open letter to his former employers at the Associated Press. It is worth reading as a commentary not only on the way the wire service is run, but on more general trends in the industry:



                                                                                       January 31, 2006
Mr. Burl Osborne, Chairman
The Associated Press
450 W. 33rd Street
New York, New York 10001
 
Burl,
 
            You may remember my last open letter to the AP Board and to my colleagues, in November 1990, a tribute to Mike Goldsmith, who died on the job at 68, the victim of a Liberian soldier’s gun butt and a malarial mosquito.   
 
“If his breed is not to die,” I wrote, “we must understand what fed the fires of a man who spent 45 years working himself to death in AP service.  He knew that all of the AP’s fancy machines and systems are so much useless junk without the one thing at the heart of our being: the reporter’s link to news.”
 
That letter praised AP directors for supporting reporters like Mike.  The message is different this time.  Without hyperbole, Burl, I believe that AP’s present course represents a grave danger to a world that badly needs it.
 
Inexperienced managers of a “new AP” must understand that however they rearrange the furniture, the wire’s integrity depends on the reporters who actually gather the news upon which billions of people shape their reality.
 
Since 2002, AP has fired, retired or otherwise squandered many centuries of hard-won experience and contacts.  Valuable old hands live in fear of the ax.  With so much busywork heaped on those left and constant second-guessing from New York, many young people who planned an AP career now look elsewhere.  
 
AP still has plenty of superb correspondents and locally hired reporters, courageous, committed people of skill and energy.  I know most, and I urge you to sit down with any, with no one else listening, to discuss this letter.  Do a blind survey.  As one ex-colleague told me, “Morale hasn’t been this low in 30 years.”
 
I’ve resisted writing this because I am among those your new executive editor fired.  Living in France, I don’t like sour grapes.   But I didn’t spend a lifetime at AP because I had no other offers.  Now I teach students and young reporters eager to cover the world.  AP badly needs this sort of fresh talent.  But, given the present course, what do I tell them?
When told in 2004 that I had chosen to retire, I was asked to agree not to “disparage” AP.   I refused on principle:  that defensiveness shows what’s going wrong.   How could someone disparage AP after defending it for 40 years?
 
The point is:  what is the AP?   I worked for six executive editors, four head guys, and a zillion Board members.   In a non-profit cooperative, these jobs amount to temporary public trusts.   AP is that network of people out where it counts, the bylines you know; the young hopefuls; and all those invaluable “locals” you’ve never heard of who are your strongest link to reality.  “AP” stands for reliable news, however difficult it may be to gather and whomever it may irritate.  After air, water and food, it is the most basic of human needs. 
 
Recently in Buenos Aires where I was bureau chief from 1973 to 1976, I reread your new editors’ statement of principles.  It stresses what won’t go on the wire, with emphasis on anonymous sources.   But any reporter knows that what is not said is often far more important than what is.   Sources who risk dismissal or death for telling the truth depend on anonymity.
 
AP broke the news of how the Argentine military was “disappearing” many thousands because a troubled U.S. embassy spook told me about it on very deep background.  We defied death squads to take the story to the wire, step by step, with our editors’ support in a way that would be impossible today.
Back then, a bureau chief, a news editor, and three English-language writers worked with a sizeable Argentine staff.  This allowed us to go find news, not merely react to it in case it wandered across our desk. 
 
This time, the only English-language writer – the bureau chief – was on a well-earned vacation.   His backup had been let go.   I know him to be a good hand, eager to get out more.  But like all bureau chiefs, he is tied down with daily planning schedules and time-wasting process generated by distant bureaucrats.
 
There are fewer dramatic kidnappings.   But during that week, a French water company left Argentina in disgust, dimming global hopes that private-public waterworks could meet a major world need.  And a huge chunk of melting iceberg floated past Mar del Plata.  That, Burl, is big news.
 
             Is this about economy?   The bureau then earned a large surplus because I had time to nurture subscribers.  We could afford to take embassy spooks to lunch.  We traveled the provinces in search of real news.  Is the new way better?  When I called on the long-time editor of AP’s biggest Argentine client, he snorted at the idea of faceless executives a continent away selling him a news agency as if it were a newsprint supplier.   Our profession doesn’t work like that.
 
             The new buzzword is profitability.  But AP is a .org, not a .com, with a nobler purpose.  The “essential global news” whatever, your new branders’ slogan, has been reality since 1848, when editors formed a cooperative to cover stories beyond their own reach.  The more newspapers and broadcasters – AP’s collective owners -- slash staffs and have to guess at the news from a distance, the more AP is vital to sane, safe life on earth. 
 
God knows the old AP had its failings.  But when you boast of Mark Twain’s and Gandhi’s encomiums, you mean AP’s endangered spirit.   The historic role is to report the world, not to enrich shareholders.   With technology and security, the price of foreign news is rising fast.  Publishers who seek 25 to 30 percent profits can fill their papers with AP copy at a fraction of what staff writers cost.   But can they then insist that AP dues increase at less than inflation?
 
Another new direction troubles me deeply.  Reporters’ performance is measured now in output, words per shift, rather than by what matters.   Tiers of editors, some with no foreign experience, shape the report from a distance.  They rewrite copy, and impose guidance that is often based on misperceptions.  Arbitrary word limits leave out context.   Stories are spiked without explanation.
 
The effect is devastating, especially to those in remote places.  News agencies need alternating current; reporters’ energies must help power the process.  AP now works on DC – a one-way flow from top.  Even Duracell bunnies can soldier on for only so long.
 
Your best people work their hearts out because of inner motivations that are lost on managers who don’t get it.  Their goal is not a paycheck but rather the satisfaction of getting a story right.  Instead, too many are like tiny cameras on a colonoscopy probe.  They penetrate the world’s least attractive places only to send back raw data to “specialists” in clean clothes who decide what it means.
 
In Frankfurt, we recently honored Steve Miller, a quintessential AP bureau chief.  Steve rushed off all too often to help his Balkan reporters escape trouble or, in extremis, to comfort families.   He died of cancer but fought to the last to preserve AP values he defended for 30 years.  Steve knew that if AP did not inspire new hires, meeting their expectations, it faced a harrowing future.
 
I saw old pals, “locals” who routinely put their lives on the line.  Some earn less in a year than it takes to feed a board member at an annual meeting.   One had an amusing twist on the corporate viewpoint of the hand that feeds you:  A Bosnian cameraman once lost his patience with an AP boss on a rare visit:  “You eat from my camera.  Your wife eats from my camera.  Your children eat from my camera.  To me, you are para-zeet.”
          A hopeful presence in Frankfurt was a foreign editor, respected by all.  Debbie Seward spent decades abroad, learning flawless Russian, French, German and Polish, seeing up close how peoples interact.   She cared at a human level but understood tectonic shifts of global power.   We knew her dilemma, bolstering morale while her bosses rattled a heavy chain of command.   She was delegated to “retire” me, and I know she felt bad about it.  Now she is gone.  Ask her why.
 
You avoided buy-outs because U.S.-based AP correspondents work abroad without contract or union.   Cost-of-living differentials were just slashed.  Many AP people get no adjustment at all because reporters sent from New York have been replaced with lower-paid locals.   If editors disrespect reporters’ copy while managers trash their family budgets, what do you expect for the future?
 
This cri de coeur should not veer into the dismissal of one dispensable ex-reporter, now happily doing other things.  But few of AP’s “disappeared” are free to speak, and my own case is a useful example of squandered AP resource.
 
I first went abroad for AP in 1967.  When I left after two years as editor of the International Herald Tribune in 1981, AP designed a job for me.  I was to make wide contacts and take time with stories that mattered in order, as your new people would say, to brand my byline.  I had a generous budget and reported to the executive editor.   I was treated well, and I worked hard.  We had solid play, major beats and awards.   For 21 years, AP paid for a baseball bat, and I hit hard with it.   Your new executive editor whittled that down to a toothpick.
 
A 1981 refugee series made three points: Israel would have to give Gaza to Palestinians after much grief (think Hamas): Somalia would split into warlord fiefdoms; two million neglected Afghans in Pakistan were embracing Islamic fanatics.  A 1984 African hunger series foretold Ethiopia.  We predicted the Soviet breakup, with Central Asia embracing Islam.  We saw AIDS spread out of Africa and the globe overheat.  A biological weapons series showed how stalled inspections in Iraq risked war and noted America’s vulnerability to terror.  And so on.  In 1989, a big year for foreign news, I won the Overseas Press Club award and was short-listed for a Pulitzer.  I shared AP’s top award in 2000 and won it in 2001, with the Harry Chapin, for the water series.  After 9/11, in Afghanistan, Lou Boccardi, Tom Curley and Jon Wolman were generous about my work.
 
But new editors seemed to favor foreign coverage shaped in Washington and New York.  My copy on Europe’s reluctance to invade Iraq without evidence was spiked.  And so on.  I produced major beats in the first Gulf War, with experience predating Vietnam, but was kept out of Baghdad in 2003.   I was unable to report clear unanimous warnings by Middle East allies not to invade under U.S. colors.               I was assigned to stay in Paris, reporting to the London desk, to write features to be translated for the European wires.  While doing this, I prepared for the Olympics.  I’d written the opening in Sydney and a column; Terry Taylor asked me to do Athens.  It was clear the games risked outdoing Munich.  I knew Greece well and was an old hand at covering terrorism.  The night before I was to leave, after my nonrefundable flight was paid and I’d found free lodging, I was told to stay home for economy reasons.  Instead, a young New York writer went to cover parties, including that much-discussed ouzo event.  And then in November, on a personal trip home, I was told I was retiring.
 
Here is why my case is instructive.  Firing old hands at AP wages doesn’t save much money.  Good reporters, in fact, cost less.  Under the old one-riot-one-ranger approach, a single Mike Goldsmith can do more with a telephone than a handful of tyros can do in days on the ground.   But whatever it may save AP members, what is the greater cost to a news report dependent on living memory?  Who is to take over when smart young people see what might happen to them?
 
            My email was cut before I could pass along contacts and files.   Even before I left New York, the stories came in a rush. Arafat, whom I’d known since 1967, flew to Paris to die.  The Pope died in Rome; I’d trailed him since Poland, to Sarajevo, to Africa, to the Holy Land, covering reality behind the ceremony.  The tsunami struck Southeast Asia where I’d spent three years.   Ivory Coast blew up; I’d just returned from a fresh visit.   The edges of Paris caught fire, with impact across Europe.   I’d covered that tension since the 1980s.  Then, Sharon; I was the first reporter into south Lebanon when he invaded.  And now there is Hamas. 
 
And I’m just one example among far too many.  Apart from those fired, others have decided to leave, disgusted by writing they see on the wall.   Among those who stay, edges have been chipped off essential enthusiasm.  You know the names and the circumstances.  If you don’t, you should find out.
 
No school can shape a seasoned correspondent.  Young people must work with veterans.   Background, vital to any story that matters, depends on long memories.  Any eager neophyte can hop into a hairy situation.  Then what?  Danger is one thing.  Experience saves more lives than flak vests or Centurion courses.   But even in placid situations, it takes practice to find the program, let alone the players.  Fresh reporters who prove themselves quickly must feel they have a solid future when they cost more and talk back.
 
You may respond with numbers and logs, but professional consumers know how to judge an agency’s worth.   It is not the occasional scoop or faster bulletin but rather depth and breadth over time.  They are not fooled by promotional flimflam.  Real beats are measured in months and years, not minutes.  Serious coverage is mostly about “why” and “what next.”
This lack of depth is critical.   Much was made over how AP ignored the London Sunday Times’ Downing Street scoop, a smoking gun that revealed how evidence was faked to start a war.  AP London did not relay the story, credited to the Times, the simplest of routine tasks.  Then editorial inaction in New York let it slip away.  In a different AP, a diplomatic reporter like Art Gavshon, or a Mike Goldsmith, or a Steve Miller, would have broken the story first.
 
Walker Lundy, who edited the Philadelphia Inquirer, put it wisely:  newspapers are eating their seed corn.   Foreign bureaus are shutting down.  This puts pressure on AP to cherish its best old hands.  We are seeing the opposite, and it seems to be as much about management style as it is about money.
 
An AP editor abroad, whose professional health depends upon anonymity, summed up his bosses’ new approach with bitterness:  “They’ve taken an organic thing and tried to make it into a machine.  It doesn’t work.”
 
 A lot of very good people want to stay with AP, to do what they love and do well.   They are your strength.   In a world where naked emperors define their own reality to credulous citizens who look for truth from Web logs and pundits, we need them desperately.  They are the source of your “essential global news.”
 
            If it is about money, why fund such luxuries as a service for “young” readers in their 30’s?  Alexander the Great died at 33, and he didn’t need remedial news.   Updated screen crawls for news packagers might have their place.  But shouldn’t you first focus on that basic mission to cover real news?
 
            If it is about management style, I urge you to look at cause and effect.  It may take time, at a cost to the world, but stories that are not reported when they are still stories come out as history.  Someone pays a price for missing them.
 
            You haven’t asked, of course, but here are some suggestions from someone who has worked abroad for AP for a quarter of its nearly 160 years. 
 
--Don’t let AP be a voice of America.  Many non-U.S. subscribers, I know, are already distressed.  Yes, AP does some excellent critical U.S. reporting, with stalwarts like Terry Hunt.  But I mean focus.  Compare the coverage of Katrina to Kashmir.  Or 9/11 to Madrid; proportionally, the death toll was similar.
 
--AP should set the agenda and define news rather than follow trends.  Play may suffer if you’re ahead of the pack, but the long run counts.  Obsessing over Hermes not opening up late for Oprah Winfrey in Paris was not your finest hour.  By one recent poll, American readers clicked most on a newspaper’s story about some guy’s sex act with his horse.  The world needs your leadership.
--A top editorial title carries authority but not necessarily prescience.  New York desk training confers status, but street smarts come only with time.   Stars like, say, Kathy Gannon or Aida Cerkez must earn respect the hard way, far from New York, and that can take far more time than it should. 
 
--While some reporters are gentle, lovable souls, many others are cutting tools, with hard edges.  This is what enables them to break down doors and get at reality.  Allow them to talk back, to argue, to insist on reporting what they see.
 
--Do not dumb down the report.  People who care about news want real background.  Just before the Iraq war, the top editor roasted me for mentioning Nasser, saying no one knew who he was.  That was the point.  You can’t explain this conflict without tracing how, or why, Muslims and Arabs grew radicalized.
 
--Don’t bury news with false balance.  That was why Serbs got away with mass murder for so long ago.  For examples, look at Israel v. Palestine.
 
--Don’t let unnamed sources keep real news off the wire.  Arab reporters obtain crucial interviews with Iraqi insurgents who can’t be identified.  The copy seldom reaches the wire, which carries a flood of stuff about brave U.S. troops.
 
The Iraq War is rich in distressing example, starting from Charlie Hanley’s brilliant but spiked reporting that Americans were unlikely to find WMD – or his wasted expose of Powell at the U.N.  Coverage was shaped in Washington and micromanaged from New York.  Compare AP to others on U.S. troop interaction with civilians, for starters.  Hamza Hendawi, Denis Gray and others did a lot of excellent work, true enough.  But news organizations are judged in their entirety.
 
I’ve been long and harsh because so much is at stake.  This is not to question anyone’s best intentions or professional commitment.   But AP is still a calling, a family, as well as a business.  The old policy of promoting only from within had its obvious drawbacks.  Yet everyone understood their purpose.
 
When I wrote in 1990, directors were listed proudly in the AP directory.  This time, it took me days to find them under the money in an annual report.  I can’t believe that pride is gone.  Burl, as an editor you helped build AP.   Defend it now.   Think of the future.  Correspondents and “locals” have the time, the tools, and the editorial respect they need.   There is no new AP.   Those old letters still stand for reliable news in a tumultuous world.   And we all need that badly.
 
                                                                           Sincerely,
 
                                                                           Mort           
 
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